Tastings School - Och aye the brew (Scotland)

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Och aye the brew (Scotland)

Scotland has undergone a beer revolution in the last decade. Ben McFarland looks at what is on offer

When it comes to life-enhancing liquids, Scotland can proudly lay claim to both whisky and water.

What few people know, however, is that Scotland is home to some of the United Kingdom’s most exciting and tasty beer. In fact, Scottish beer is fast-becoming the talk of hopheads and ale-aficionados worldwide. Scotland has evolved into a hotbed of brewing innovation, independent entrepreneurial verve and no small amount of fantastic award-wining beers in the last decade or so.

In 1995 the number of microbreweries in Scotland didn’t reach double figures but now there are more than 40 producers and production levels have rocketed.

Small craft brewers have been surfing the fastmoving Slow Food movement and have benefited financially from both a sliding duty scale and a gamut of government business incentives designed to stimulate investment and innovation on the islands.

That Herriot-Watt University in Edinburgh has the leading brewery degree in the country has also helped stoke the fire of brewing dynamism.

The Caledonian Brewery, situated in central Edinburgh, is widely attributed as the first regional brewery to reshape the image of Scottish beer.

Its highly hoppy, golden beer called Deuchars IPA (India Pale Ale) was a marked departure from traditional Scottish beers which tended to be sweet, chewy and full bodied with loads of barley and little hops.

Caledonian was the first to adopt a laissez-fare attitude when it comes to chucking hops into its beer. Introducing an India Pale Ale with lip-smacking hop bitterness to a drinker weaned on saccharin Scottish shilling ales and lagers was a daring move but one that has handsomely paid off.

Having won the prestigious Champion Beer of Britain title in 2002, Deuchars IPA is as ubiquitous as tartan shops, posh English students and American tourists in its native Edinburgh and can be found in pubs all across Scotland.

Caledonian has been the flag-bearer for a growing Scottish clan of microbrewers.

Hardly a month goes by without another award winging its way to Scotland with the likes of Harveistoun Brewery, Isle of Skye Brewery and Cairngorm Brewery all gaining international acclaim.

Sadly word and taste of these lesser-known Scottish beers has yet to reach the masses.

Help is at hand, however, as we raise the kilt of awareness to reveal an eye-watering, yet by no means exclusive, selection of breweries ready, willing and extremely able to slake the thirst of all you beer drinkers out there.

The creation of this most quintessential of Scottish beers came about entirely by accident.

While working for Caledonian Brewery, Dougal Sharp was contacted by William Grant and Sons, the purveyor of Glenfiddich and Grant’s whiskies, to help produce an ale-finished blended whisky called Grant’s Ale Cask Reserve.

Thousands of oak barrels were filled with a sweet, strong Edinburgh Ale whose robust characteristics were taken on by the wood and then passed on to the whisky. After flavouring hundreds of barrels, the beer was simply being thrown away when, one day, Dougal received a phone call from the master distiller waxing lyrical about the wonders of the neglected liquid.

“I thought he was pulling my leg and so I got him to send me a barrel and added it to our weekly tasting panel as a mystery beer,” recalled Dougal. “It scored maximum points.” So in August 2003, Innis and Gunn was launched as the first-ever oak-aged beer.

Each of the first-fill bourbon oak casks is hand picked, flat-packed and shipped to Scotland from Kentucky and restored by Glenfiddich’s very own coopers.

The beer, which is contract brewed in a top secret Scottish brewery, is kept in cask for a minimum of 30 days, nosed after 25 by a master blender and further matured in a marrying tun for 47.

The 77 day process results in an outrageously smooth beer that is lightly-oaked with vanilla and toffee notes and more than a hint of smoky whisky flavours. It’s fantastic with shellfish and orange-tinted chocolate, but not necessarily at the same time.

Yes. Innis & Gunn doesn’t have a tour of its own, but Glenfiddich distillery, where the oak-aged beer is stored and matured, is well worth a visit.

Getting There:
From Aberdeen to Glenfiddich is 55 miles, approximately a one hour drive in fair weather.

• Take the A96 west, following signposts for Inverness.

• Go straight across the roundabout on the outskirts of Huntly; approximately half a mile (0.8km) further on, take a left onto the A920 – signposted Dufftown.

• At the T-junction on the outskirts of Dufftown, take another left which leads you to the village square with a central clock tower.

• Take a right immediately after the clock tower. This is A941. Half a mile down on the right is the Glenfiddich distillery. www.innisandgunn.com www.glenfiddich.com

The Black Isle Brewery, set up in 1998 in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, is a revered purveyor of Soil Association accredited organic beers that warm the hearts of drinkers rather than the globe.

A peninsula rather than an island, the Black Isle is to grain what Rio is to skimpy beachwear. There’s loads of it and it’s a brewer’s dream.

From a portfolio consisting of both bottled and bottle-conditioned brews, the Black Isle Yellowhammer, made from cascade hops, is a highlight.

Refreshing, zesty and full of grapefruit, it comes packaged in a bottle made entirely from recycled materials.

At the other end of the flavour scale is the life-affirming Black Isle Porter, a dark claret coloured beer made with dark roasted malts. Softly spoken at 4.5% ABV yet sublime with locally-caught oysters.

Yes. Black Isle welcomes visitors and will provide a comprehensive tour of its fantastic brewery and, better still, a tasting too. Mon-Sat 10am-5pm (all year round) and Sunday 11am-5pm (from May to September).

Getting There

• From Inverness take the A9 north over the Kessock Bridge.

• Take the third turning on the right, signposted for Allangrange.

• Then 70 metres to a T Junction where you turn left.

• After 150 metres turn right. Follow this road for approximately 1.5 km and turn right where you see the brewery sign.

Tel: +44 (0)1463 811 871 www.blackislebrewery.com

Cairngorm may be a relative new kid on the Scottish craft brewing block, dating back just four years, but few can match its volume of accolades.

The last two years has seen Cairngorm scoop more prizes than an octopus in a Lucky Dip. As well as recently winning the Great British Beer Festival’s Champion Speciality category, the brewery has also won the Champion Beer of Scotland for two years running and also runner up position this year.

Of the 14 brews produced at the Aviemore brewery by Sean Tomlinson, the two star players are Trade Winds and Black Gold.

The former is a gorgeous blonde speciality beer that Sean describes as having a “light golden colour with a high proportion of wheat and corn giving it a clean fresh taste, on top of which there is masses of hops, fruit and citrus flavours.” Black gold, meanwhile, has a rich dark colour – gained from copious amounts of roasted barley – and a flavour profile sweeter than a puppy in a dress.

Yes, available every weekday at either 10.30am or 2.30pm. Phone ahead to book your tour as each tour can only take 15 people.

Getting There: The Cairngorm Brewery can be found right in the centre of Aviemore at: Dalfaber Industrial Estate, Aviemore, Inverness-shire, Scotland, PH22 1PY Tel: +44 (0)1479 812 222 www.cairngormbrewery.com

Valhalla is the northernmost brewery in Scotland, situated on Shetland where the winters are darker than a miner’s pocket and where the sun refuses to set all summer.

Sonny and Sylvia Priest, a husband and wife team, set-up Valhalla in 1997 and produce a diverse trio of ales. Try White Wife which takes its name from the ghostly apparition of an old woman who appears in cars, usually driven by lone males, on a lonely stretch of road just three miles from the brewery.

That the woman on the label looks like my mum is not the only reason I like it.

Hazy amber in colour, White Wife is a very drinkable session beer that’s jam packed with fruit and, like most wives, just a little bitterness.

Yes. Guided tours are available.

Getting There: There are seven daily flights from the UK mainland all connecting with London and other major European cities. In summer you can fly direct to Shetland from London Stansted and Oslo.

Tel: +44 (0)1957 711 658 www.valhallabrewery.co.uk

Prior to the arrival of hops in the 18th century, Scottish beer was made using whatever was within reach and, to a certain extent, reason.

Pretty much anything was thrown into the brewing process in order to add sweetness and balance to what was essentially malt and water.

Heather flowers were one of many ingredients used, more as a preserving than flavouring agent, and history tomes confirm that heather ale was widely drunk in medieval times.

In 1992 Bruce and Scott Williams breathed life back into this long-forgotten beer style after stumbling across an old Scottish recipe book written in Gaelic.

Bruce experimented, perfected the recipe and launched a beer called Fraoch – the Gaelic term for heather. Such was its success that even more unusual beers, all steeped in Scottish brewing heritage, have followed.

Grozet, 5% ABV, is a resuscitation of a flavoursome gooseberry ale that was very popular with Robert Burns and other members of Scotland’s 18th century glitterati.

Other historic ales available include Alba, a strong tawny brown ale made with pickled pine and spruce and first introduced by the Vikings; and Kelpie, a chocolate ale made with seaweed.

Only for serious beer boffins as since moving to an industrial estate the brewery lacks the charm of its previous home. But the beers are worth hunting down. Tel: +44 (0)1259 725 511 www.heatherale.com

The Isle of Arran, to the west of Glasgow, is like a miniature version of Scotland with a dazzling array of scenery that belies its relatively small size.

Mountains and woodlands, beaches and outlying islands are all offered, but for beer lovers the outdoors can simply wait as the Arran Brewery is the biggest must-see.

Set in the shadow of Arran's imposing Brodick Castle, with panoramic views of Brodick Bay and Goatfell Mountain, the Arran Brewery sits snugly and smugly in stunning surroundings.

Arran Blonde, a delicious golden beer with delightful citrus and floral notes and a delicate hop hit, is the flagship brew and was voted Scotland’s best bottled beer last year.

Arran Dark, meanwhile, is a traditional smooth drinking Scottish ale while Arran Sunset is one for the summer, an amber beer that goes down easier than a Portuguese footballer.

Very much so. The visitor centre is a three star ‘Visit Scotland Tourist Attraction.’ As part of the brewery building, the visitor centre lets you ‘walk through’ the process via the viewing gallery and observation windows.

Summer opening times: Mon-Sat: 10am-5pm, Sun: 12:30pm-5pm.

Winter (September-Easter Weekend): Daily except Sundays and Tuesdays 10am-3:30pm Getting There: From Ardrossan on the mainland you have to take the ferry to get to Arran. Ardrossan has good transport connections to the rest of Scotland.

Tel: +44 (0)1770 302 353 www.cairngormbrewery.com

1) Highlands & Islands Brewery Latitude Pilsner, 3.6% A cask conditioned pale straw lager with a generous nod to Czech brewing. Refreshing beer that’s light in strength yet punches above its weight in terms of flavour.
Tel: +44 (0)1855 831 111 www.hibreweries.com

2) Hebridean Brewing Company Berserker Export, 7.5% A real India pale ale based on a 150 year old recipe. A wolf in sheep’s clothing but with more bite.
Tel: +44 (0)1851 700 123 www.hebridean-brewery.co.uk

3) Isle of Skye Brewing Company Black Cullin, 4.5% Roast oatmeal and honey come together to make this most dark of old Scottish ales. Robust, in-yer-face and with lots of attitude, a kind of Braveheart of the Scottish brewing scene.
Tel: +44 (0)1470 542 477 www.skyebrewery.co.uk

4) Harviestoun Brewery Harviestoun’s Schiehallion, 4.8% Even though it’s recently been bought by Caledonian, Harviestoun is arguably the jewel in Scotland’s brewing crown. Its sublime Bitter & Twisted won the champion beer of Britain in 2003 and walked away with a gold medal at the prestigious Brewing Industry International Awards.
Meanwhile Schiehallion, named after a nearby mountain, is a rare example of a cask conditioned lager and a damn fine one too.
Tel: +44 (0)1259 769 100 or email: harviestoun@talk21.com